[This is an as yet unfinished little essay that I am writing for you to forward to people who want to claim this or that thing which is definitely not slavery is slavery.]
In a world burdened by a total lack of analysis and a total glut of messaging, people are drawn to engage in the the sensationalism of claiming humankind’s worst forms are now manifested in the injustices that have given us cause. We do not benefit from this. Let us talk about slavery.
Slavery predates American slavery, which is to say, it was always so wrong but seldom so cruel. It has existed in thousands of cultures for thousands of years. It is the conception of ownership of a human being by another human being for the inducement of forced labor, and it is followed by the material enforcement of that proclaimed relationship. A person claims they own a fellow person to exploit their labor, and will back that claim up with violence. Someone held in ownership but not made to labor is a captive; someone made to labor but not owned is a serf, a wage labor, an indentured servant. Slavery didn’t metamorphose in all of its manifestations during the Atlantic Slave Trade, because concurrently with newer forms of slavery, older slaveries of tribal and patriarchal sorts persisted. However, the world looks as it does today because of the racialized chattel slavery that benefited Europe and those descended from Europeans as a white elite were the predominant owners of enslaved indigenous people and Africans. This succeeded indentured servitude and other forms of forced labor as the preeminent form of wealth production and colonization for much of the Americas for most of the centuries since that fateful year of 1492.
Now let us look at things that are not slavery, a compendium which we can add to as more analogies are popularized.
Taxes are not slavery. The government does not claim to own its subjects. A state does not generally coerce its citizens into forced labor in order to pay taxes. It is part of the social contract that the state serves its citizens and the citizens have an obligation to the state. As a Marxist who consorts with anarcho-communists, I and Marx and many would agree that humankind should work towards an existence without a state, and that the promises of the state are disingenuous. But taxation is, if anything, a limiting of the servitude caused by capitalism, and at best a means of providing citizens with the basic needs so that they can take ownership over their own lives. A state, not owning its citizens, can be left for another state. A person has the free will, though they may not have the access, to lawfully leave their duties behind. Don’t like it? Then you had better not like the system of capitalism that it protects. However, taxes are not slavery.
Debt is not slavery. Many class relations exist inside of and out of slavery where the use of debt coerces people into labor. That is not debt, however. Debt peonage, or forced labor to pay off debts, is not in-and-of itself slavery unless there is a direct or state-sanctioned understanding that the debtor is owned by the creditor in lieu of payment. But debt does not place ownership of a person into the hands of the creditor otherwise, and the person is not induced to perform forced labor whose character is under the control of the creditor.
Regulation is not slavery. Coercive authority (or, in the case of US government regulation of businesses, flaccid authority) to not engage in activities that are against the public trust is not the ownership of a human being by another human being. A recognition that the general interests of the civil society or citizens will be irrevocably harmed by a corporate or institutional act is not an inducement to forced labor. And corporations are not people. That is, though rights are a bourgeois concept, corporations are not of flesh and blood.
Sex work is not slavery. Sex work is an area of labor for pay in the sex industry. The sex industry is capitalist, but that is not the same thing as saying it is slavery. There are tens of thousands of sex slaves around the world in the trafficking underworld, but that there is real slavery in an industry does not mean that that labor causes slavery. Capitalism causes slavery. There are also real slaves working in construction in Qatar, laboring for contractors at US military bases, in Congolese mines, and in sweatshops, but those who decry sex work when done as free labor do not demand people stop constructing buildings, serving war machines, mining for gems, or sewing shirts. Sex work can include crass exploitation and can allow considerable self-management and ownership by workers themselves. It is not the existence of sex work, but the existence of classes of exploiters and exploited that will keep slavery around for a long time to come.
Wage labor is not slavery. One of the cardinal concepts of political economy is that capitalism exploits free labor which it maintains is progress over the slaveowner’s exploitation of the slave. Marx knew very well that crass exploitation of wage labor in one place was often used by advocates of free trade to defend slavery elsewhere (for example, British press that condemned London sweatshops as a means to condone chattel slavery in the antebellum south). When Marx was writing about the Dickensian experience of wage laborers in Britain and Northern Europe in the 19th Century, he was writing about workers of all ages (as young as 6 as far as I can remember) working up to over 24-hour workdays, often forced to sleep in their workshops. The level of wage labor exploitation did rise to wage slavery at the time because there was indeed forced labor in the form of overtime (sometimes a multiple of the paid working day) and sometimes even temporary ownership of children for their labor. This wage slavery still exists, but not amongst Portland baristas, Brooklyn freelancers, or Teamsters. It can still be found in sweatshops, from Los Angeles to Honduras to Bangladesh. Conflating all wage labor as wage slavery does not help us understand the exploitation of wage labor just as it makes invisible the much more crass forms of forced labor existant under the wage system.
Kanye West is not the new slave. This one should be apparent.
What is slavery today? There is very real human trafficking that is slavery, and there is much of it that simply borders on slavery but would literally be some other form of forced labor. The labor done in the Gulag was slavery, and the 13th Amendment has permitted the United States to constitutionally enslave people incarcerated in its prisons. The indentured servants from countries like Nepal and the Philippines that work across Arab countries are sometimes slaves. The workers locked in sweatshops in parts of Bangladesh and Cambodia are slaves. Those domestic workers who are locked in homes in Western Europe, Canada and the United States are slaves. We do nothing but marginalize them out of the public eye, the public mind, and the public heart, if we trivialize slavery.